“When Pharaoh sent out the people,G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines,….but led the people towards the way of the wilderness, to the Sea of Reeds.
The comment of R’ Eli Munk was that they were not yet ready to wage war with the Philistines, they did not yet have the courage, organisation or faith. The following generation who were reared in the desert would not fear fighting nations greater and mightier than themselves. R’ Munk quoted Rabbeinu Bachya who stated that Israel is required to exercise all practical options including self defense before supernatural intervention could be requested. Strong faith would empower the successful practical approach. R’ Munk also quoted from King Shlomo who stated in proverbs “the horse is prepared for the day of battle but the victory is with G-d”.
Rambam explained that the hardship of the wilderness would increase their gratification when the Israelites entered the promised land. He also explained that the circuitous route was symbolic of the fact that the lessons the people learn are often taught in a roundabout way: sometimes an undesirable but deeply ingrained behaviour pattern is limited rather than forbidden outright. Munk then quoted Chatam Sofer who referred to the words “derech eretz” meaning “by way of the land”. It also refers to “the contemporary culture” and the similarity between the Philistine and Egyptian cultures and the need for the long detour to avoid the Philistine culture having any hold on them.
Nechama Leibowitz wrote that the longer way round was to be preferred because the characteristics of the people after two centuries of slavery included “timidity, scepticism and twisted thinking”.There was “pettiness and grumbling as well as faith and strength of character”. When they saw the Egyptians pursuing them, they were overawed, 600,000 people intimidated by 600 chariots. Ibn Ezra explained that the Israelites were psychologically incapable because of their slave mentality, their lack of knowledge of warfare and their lack of independence of spirit. They thought it was ”better to be buried in the graves of a familiar country than to die in the unknown”. He wrote that the Israelites looked to the future with trepidation.
We can see parallels in the attitudes then and in our time, knowing the great difference having an independent and successful country, Israel, since 1948, has made to the Jewish psyche. The settling and maintenance of life in the land requires faith, independent spirit, and integrity, and its establishment occurred after the darkest time in Jewish history.
Recent scholarship (1) identified the location of the crossing of the sea as one of the lagoons, probably the Sirbonic Lake where an isthmus can be inundated with waves from the Mediteranean when an east wind is blowing. When the Israelites were standing at the shores, with the Egyptians approaching, they were “terribly frightened”. They were led into the sea by Nachshon, a man of faith. G-d had told Moshe to tell the Israelites to march forward, and Rashi’s comment was that the “sea did not stand in their way”. Nechama Leibowitz explained that “if they put their trust in the G-d who had brought them out of Egypt, and marched forward even before the sea divided, they would merit that the sea divide in front of them. Leadership of the people today has many parallels.
(1) Encyclopedia Judaica.